India enchants with exotic appeal that permeates the country, from the snowy peaks of the Himalayas to the tropical forested peninsula. The world’s seventh largest country in size and second in population with just over one billion residents, this Asia destination escapes catchall description. A visit to the popular Golden Triangle – comprised of the northern cities of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra, home of the Taj Mahal – is quintessential India for many travelers. This trine provides a wonderful introduction to India’s many colors, flavors and traditions as well as boasts numerous hotels where five-star seems an understatement. But for those of you who find tangents enticing, we give you a glimpse of some of India’s other sides to bring your enjoyment full-circle.
Artistic India: Udaipur
Beauty is an intrinsic part of daily life in the city of Udaipur, set on the shores of four lakes and perfectly framed by the Aravalli Range. Founded by the Maharana Udai Singh, this northern India city exudes an air of royalty with its cream-colored marble palaces and sprawling mansions called havelis. Experience the city’s tangible appreciation for the arts as music wafts through the air from hidden courtyards and profusions of vibrant color meet you at every turn in the Bapu and Bara Bazaars, located within the walled city and filled with handcrafted saris, fabrics and jewelry. Miniature paintings have been celebrated in this region since the 16th century, comprising tiny depictions of people in incredible detail. Behold the many Kishangarh-style paintings found throughout the city, distinguishable by the figures’ long necks and exaggerated features. Or, head to Amba Mata Scheme to see traditional cloth scroll paintings illustrating folk legends and religious tradition. Near the town square of Jagdish Chowk, puppets called kathputlis suspend from shop windows. Enjoy an elaborate display of puppetry paired with traditional Rajasthani music and dance at the Bagore-Ki-Haveli, a historic mansion turned museum, and don’t miss the exquisite Mewar paintings on the walls of the Queen’s Chamber. Condense this art exploration into one excursion with a visit to Shilpgram – meaning “Craftsmen’s Village” – an ethnographic museum just west of town where 26 huts display art styles from various Indian states, such as carved terracotta pieces and handcrafted pottery. All of this artistry comes to you at five-star hotel Taj Lake Palace, an Udaipur centerpiece situated amidst a manmade island on Lake Pichola. Attend a private Kalbelia dance performance, the twinkling of the dancers’ bangle-clad arms and mirror-embroidered dresses sparkling in the candlelight as you sip wines from across the globe. Watch an artist creating a miniature painting before your very eyes within the hotel’s private bazaar and feel the soft collection of textiles embellished with traditional Zardozi embroidery. But for a display that will rival any painter’s canvas, stay in a lake-view room facing the City Palace, where the pink sky reflecting off the water is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Spiritual India: Varanasi
Capture a glimpse of a timeless age in one of the oldest cities in the world, Varanasi, dating back 2,800 years archaeologically and even longer according to legend. Rise with the sun to witness India’s ancient tradition and ritual culminate along the banks of the Ganges River. A private boat ride provides the perfect vantage point, your oarsman making a quiet approach as you watch women in colorful silk saris hand-washing clothing at water’s edge, men wearing prayer beads motionlessly holding yogic asanas and devout Hindus partaking in bathing rituals within the waist-deep holy waters fronting the Ghats, the broad set of steps descending to the river. At night, we can arrange privileged seating for you to observe a dramatic aarti prayer ceremony at Dashashwamedh Ghat, where priests twirl firing ghee lamps and the ring of bells and Vedic chants carry on waterfront breezes. Follow this trail of devotion through the city’s narrow winding streets, passing wayside alters and shops selling vermillion powder enroute to Vishwanath Temple – one of only 12 temples of its kind – the top gilded with 1,654 pounds of gold. This opulence is also detected in the many textile shops, where you’ll find some of India’s finest silk brocades interwoven with gold and silver threads. Meet a master weaver and watch his nimble fingers navigate the loom as he explains this craft dating back thousands of years, his family’s workmanship decorating the dress of royal Mughals and Tibetan monks alike. Head a mere six miles outside city limits to see another tie to Buddhism, Sarnath, believed to be the birthplace of the ancient philosophy. Wander the ruins of the historical complex built here and observe monks clad in orange civara, robes, as they bow before ancient stupas in devotion and spiritual reverence.
Quiet India: Backwaters of Kerala
Located on the western coast of India’s southernmost point, the lush and tropical region of Kerala is a study in stillness. Tucked between mountain hills carpeted by cardamom, cinnamon and tea plantations to the east and the Arabian Sea to the west, a series of 44 rivers and interlinking waterways called The Backwaters create a labyrinth of seclusion. Savor spice-infused local fish, beautifully wrapped in a banana leaf; watch folk tales be told by the expressive faces of elaborately adorned Kathakali dancers and help a mahout, elephant keeper, wash a baby elephant with coconut husks as he tells you of the orphaned history of the large and loveable animals at the reserve. Then board a kettuvallam, a thatched-roof wooden houseboat, to experience more of India’s rural life as your captain paddles along the coconut-tree lined riverbanks. Smiling boys swim alongside, showing off their skills in retrieving mussels from below; women diligently tend rice paddies and uniformed children wave to you as they pass in canoe “school buses.”
Step off the boat at Kumarakom Lake Resort overlooking the massive Vembanad Lake, where exotic migratory birds perch on the carved wooden gables topping the 59 luxury heritage villas. Almost every architectural feature of the resort, down to the brass locks decorating the wood-hinged doors, was reclaimed from ancestral Kerala mansions. Take a dip in the pools meandering through the property to your room’s doorstep, or meet with the hotel’s Ayurvedic practitioners – Ayurveda being India’s ancient healing practice incorporating massage, herbs and oils to balance the mind, body and spirit – to determine the best treatment for you at the spa. You’ll be treated to a private martial arts performance called Kalaripayattu, the oldest and most scientific form of its kind and a testament to sword-wielding flexibility dating back to the 11th century. Be sure to request the Presidential Suite, where Charles, Prince of Wales, celebrated his 65th birthday last November with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. It boasts a private lake view, traditional woodwork, authentic murals and blissful peace and quiet.
Wild India: Ranthambore Tiger Reserve
Though the state of Rajasthan in northwestern India often is synonymous with sweeping desert terrain, Ranthambore National Park’s Tiger Reserve serves as a forested oasis just 92 miles west of Jaipur. While other reserves report higher concentrations of Royal Bengal Tigers, Ranthambore boasts more frequent sightings than any other tiger reserve in India. And though sightings of the elusive tiger are not guaranteed, the setting alone will amaze, dotted with lake palaces, temple ruins and an ancient fort under the emerald-green cover of the dhonk trees. Excitement will take hold as you spot other exotic creatures, such as leopards, sloth bears and striped hyenas, roaming through the underbrush. Leafless trees extend your visibility during dry season, December through February, when tigers are most active and the courtship calls of the antlered sambar deer resonate throughout the cool morning air.
Following your jungle exploration with an expert naturalist, return to the extravagant interiors of Oberoi Vanyavilas’ 25 air-conditioned luxury tents. The undivided attention of the staff makes you feel as if you’re the Indian and British royals who once made this land their stomping grounds. Soak in your claw-foot tub or admire the intricate detail of the embroidered stretched canvas overhead while lounging on your four-poster bed. Each tent features a private garden, but to magnify the serenity, request a tent overlooking the koi-filled pond of lilies.
Interested in travel to India? For a first time visit to India we recommend Insight Vacations Essence of India 8 day package which focuses on the Golden Triangle, the cities of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur showcase India’s rich Mughal and Rajput heritage – imposing forts, sumptuous palaces and gleaming marble temples and tombs, such as the exquisite Taj Mahal. If you have 2 week, consider Colours of Rajasthan which begins in Dehli and visits Agra, the Ancient Mughul Capital, Princely Park of Ranthambhore, Jaipur, the Amber Fort, Jodhpur and Udaipur.